Wetlands are among the most productive ecosystems in the world, and home to many specially adapted plant and wildlife species. Wetlands provide many important benefits to people, fish, and wildlife.
Questions to Consider
- What is a wetland? What factors must be present for a place to be considered a wetland?
- What are some of the different types of wetlands found in Texas? What are the differences and similarities between them?
- What are some examples of the special adaptations found in wetland plants and animals?
- How are wetlands important to fish, birds, and other wildlife?
- How do wetlands improve water quality?
- How do wetlands provide natural flood control?
- How do wetlands recharge aquifers?
- Why should we protect wetlands? How can we protect wetlands?
What is the closest wetland to you? What type of wetland is it, and what value does it hold for your community? How does your community affect the wetland?
Chapter 10: Wetlands
Wetlands are places where the land and water meet. It’s a zone of transition — not dry, not a pond, but not land either.
The key ingredient in a wetland is always water. All wetlands are wet for a major part of the plant growing season. Some wetlands may have standing water. Others may just be muddy places. Some may even appear dry when it doesn’t rain for a long time. But if you dig a hole, the hole will fill with water.
Smelly and biologically diverse
Because wetland soil is saturated or covered with water, the tiny spaces between the soil’s bits of dirt stay filled with water, leaving little or no room for air to get in. Mixed in with this water are tiny creatures that break down dead plant and animal matter which is called detritus. Two types of decomposers help break down detritus. Aerobic bacteria play a role in the initial decomposition process. These bacteria require dissolved oxygen in the water which can quickly be used up by the bacteria. Once this happens anaerobic bacteria, which do not need oxygen, take over and do the majority of work in the wetland feeding on detritus to break it down.
As these decomposers break down the detritus, they may produce sulfur-containing compounds that smell like rotten eggs. It may be stinky, but the smell tells us the wetland is healthy. The rich detritus nourishes a complex food web that supports a wide range of plants and animals. Next time you visit a wetland grab a bit of the bottom and give it a good smell.
Wetland plants are specially adapted to live in the saturated soil. Many of the animal species found in wetlands can be completely aquatic, such as fish. Others require both wet and dry habitats for survival, such as beaver. Some species will use wetlands if available, but otherwise can survive on land as long as they have some source of water to drink somewhere. The ability for so many species to use wetlands makes this kind of ecosystem one of the most biologically diverse on Earth. You can find more kinds of animals and plants in an acre of wetland than in almost any other kind of ecosystem. (Fig 10.1)
This great diversity of life makes wetlands among the most productive ecosystems as well. Up to 90% of Texas’ saltwater and freshwater fish species depend on wetlands for food, spawning, and nursery grounds. Life gathers around wetlands, and wetlands give life.
Wetlands in Texas can be divided into two broad categories:
- Freshwater wetlands can form wherever shallow water collects on the land. These are our river floodplains, bottomland hardwoods, marshes, seeps, springs, ponds, playa lakes, sloughs, oxbows, swamps, along some of our stream banks and lake areas, and places where the water table reaches the surface. Freshwater wetlands contain plant species adapted to life where water levels may go up and down. Many of these species can withstand periods when wetlands may become dry.
- Coastal wetlands form where saltwater and freshwater mix together. These are our coastal shorelines, shallow bays and inlets, and swamps, marshes, mud flats, and deltas of our coastal lowlands and estuaries. Plant species must be able to survive changes in both salinity and water level, because these wetlands are often affected by changes in amount of freshwater inflow and tidal fluctuations in water level.
Within these categories, Texas has several kinds of wetland ecosystems. Where you are located in Texas will determine which kind of wetland you see (Fig 10.2)
Playa lake wetlands are found in the Texas High Plains. These wetlands form in shallow depressions in the land’s surface. They are usually round and small, and about 15 to 20 acres in size. The depressions naturally fill with water from rain or snow to form wetlands that are only about a foot deep. There are about 20,000 of these in Texas and they play a major role in recharge of the Ogallala aquifer. Playa lakes go through frequent wet and dry cycles. Riparian wetlands are also found on the High Plains. These are the wetlands that form along the edges of streams and rivers. They provide important food and cover for wildlife.
Spring-fed wetlands are an amazing geologic feature of Central Texas. These wetlands are filled by water that may have traveled great distances underground in an aquifer before flowing to the surface to form the wetland. Springs occur where there are faults, cracks, and other openings in the aquifer. Riparian wetlands are also found in Central Texas.
Wetlands in South Texas are of two main types: Sand sheet wetlands are small isolated depressions found in places where wind erodes away topsoil, exposing clay soils underneath. These depressions trap and hold water when it rains. Resacas are channels of the Rio Grande that have been cut off from the river. The channels fill with water and sediment, creating shallow wetlands and ponds. Sand sheet wetlands and resacas may be the only places wildlife can find fresh water in this very arid part of Texas. Both kinds of wetlands can become dry during periods of drought.
In the Trans-Pecos region, spring-fed wetlands found on the side of mountains or in small mountain valleys, are called mountain springs. These are small wetlands found in the Guadalupe Mountains, Chisos Mountains, and other rugged highland areas of West Texas. Ciénegas are another type of spring-fed wetland. These are small, isolated springs that occur on the desert floor in West Texas. Ciénegas and mountain springs provide water for plants and animals that could not otherwise survive in the desert.
Bottomland hardwoods are the dominate wetlands in East Texas. These are known for the large trees that live in the water. They are also called forested wetlands. Unlike most of Texas, East Texas receives large amounts of rainfall. This rain floods streams and rivers, spilling water out onto the floodplain. The force of this flooding often reshapes the stream bottoms and floodplains, forming bottomland hardwood wetlands in heavily wooded areas. Floods can cut across stream and river curves, forming new channels for the water to flow through. When this happens oxbow lakes form in the “cut-off loop” of the stream channel. (Fig. 10.3) As the oxbow lake fills with sediment they become wetlands. This is the same process that forms resacas on the Rio Grande. As these lakes fill in naturally with sediment they transition from lakes to wetlands, and then to dry land over many years.
Coastal wetlands are formed when saltwater and freshwater mix. Salinities vary widely as freshwater inflow to coastal areas goes up or down. There may be times the water is entirely fresh or times salinity can be greater than in ocean water. These wetlands can form in depressions in the land near the coast’s bays and estuaries. Rains fill these depressions, and sometimes storms push saltwater into them. Coastal wetlands can also form in low-lying areas of land where rivers flow into estuaries and bays. Many coastal wetlands have water levels and salinities that fluctuate daily because they are subjected to tides. These are called tidal wetlands and are the tidal flats, bays, marshes, and bayous we see throughout the Texas Coast.
Wetlands are special ecosystems
Wetland plants are adapted to take advantage of every ray of sunlight yet live a life in water. They have ways to expose their leaves to the sun and avoid being shaded by other plants. They also have roots that can pull in water and still get air.(Fig 10.4) Plants that grow in shallow water often have roots that tightly hold onto the soil so they can grow tall to reach sunlight. Cattails, rushes, sedges, and arrowheads do this very well. Sedges and rushes have air spaces inside their leaves to transport air and make the leaves buoyant. (Fig 10.5) Some plants, such as the water lily, can grow in deeper water while still remaining anchored by roots in the soil because they have a very long skinny stem. (Fig. 10.6) There are even plants that float around on the surface. The tiny duckweed has leaves with air spaces and grows in open water to avoid the shade of taller plants. Their roots are short and hang down in the nutrient-rich water.
Coastal wetland plants, such as mangrove and salicornia, can live in water having a high salinity. These plants are called halophytes.
Animals that live in wetlands are special too. Wetlands are home to many invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, fish, birds, and mammals. Predators here are adapted to find and catch prey in wet places. The whirligig beetle’s eyes focus both above and below water level to help it find prey. The black-necked stilt’s long legs and specially adapted feet allow it to walk on mud. (Fig 10.7) Stilts can snatch fish and tadpoles from under water with their long, slender beaks. The frog’s long spring-like legs and the turtle’s shell help them escape predators. Ducks have spoon-like, flattened bills that make it easy for them to strain seeds and invertebrates from shallow water.
Even the fish in these shallow wet environments have special adaptations. With their upturned eyes and mouths, the mosquitofish can slurp down mosquito larvae on the surface. Some fish species spawn in the shallow, marshy places along the shorelines of lakes and rivers. The small young fish hide from larger predators in the plant filled shallow water wetlands. There is plenty of food for young fish in such places. They remain in this cover until they grow large enough to venture out into deeper water. Without the wetlands, these species would disappear even though there may be plenty of deep water nearby where the adult fish can live just fine. In fact many freshwater fish and most of the important fish and invertebrates in the Gulf of Mexico are dependent on wetlands as a place for their young to feed and grow up safely.
Food and lodging for travelers
Wherever they may roam, migratory ducks, geese, shorebirds, and other waterbirds need wetland habitats. Migratory predator birds such as osprey, eagles, hawks, and owls also use wetlands, often as places where they go to feed on waterbirds.
Texas’ coastal wetlands are especially important places for migratory waterfowl to spend the winter. Texas is at the southern end of the Central and Mississippi Flyways. (Fig 10.8) These flyways are like highways in the sky that extend from one end of North America to the other. Migratory birds in Texas use these flyways to travel thousands of miles back and forth from our wetlands to nesting areas way to the north. As they travel they stop and feed in wetlands along the way. Once they reach their northern breeding grounds they lay their eggs, hatch, and raise their young. The birds return to Texas in early fall when northern areas begin to get freezing cold. After their long flight back they spend the winter feeding in Texas’ wetlands getting ready for the trip back north in early spring.
As a result, Texas wetlands are directly connected to wetlands in northern states, in Canada, and even as far away as the Arctic Circle. Healthy and productive wetlands are necessary at both ends of the birds’ flight, and all along the way. But Texas’ wetlands play an especially important role, for both wintering and migrating waterfowl.
Texas’s prairie and coastal wetlands provide winter food and lodging for 90 percent of all ducks and 75 percent of all geese in the Central Flyway. For migrating birds, Texas’ 20,000 playa lakes in the High Plains provide important stopover habitat. These wetlands supply plants, seeds, and invertebrates that migrating birds must eat to get enough energy to continue their flight north or south.
If the chain of healthy wetlands from north to south is ever broken, waterfowl like the blue-winged teal we see in Texas, will be unable to survive and reproduce from one year to the next. (FIG. 10.9) Citizen conservation groups, work together with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and other state and federal wildlife agencies to protect and restore wetlands in Texas and everywhere else migratory birds go. Migratory bird hunters buy special stamps to help pay for this wetland conservation.
Wetlands improve our environment
Years ago, some people thought wetlands were just stinky, bug-infested wastelands. The truth is that wetlands are very important to us (even if they are sometimes stinky). You’ve already read how wetlands can serve as a place for wildlife to eat, rest, and even as a nursery. Did you know that wetlands can also act as a filter, a sponge, and even a tourist attraction? Wetlands help maintain water quality, recharge aquifers and reduce flood damage, provide habitat, and are great places to go paddling, hunting, birdwatching, and fishing.
Wetlands as a Filter. When it rains, water running off city streets, fertilized lawns, landfills, and some agricultural fields can pick up and carry high levels of contaminants that may be harmful to plants and animals. This runoff can flow into wetlands. Fortunately, wetlands have the ability to absorb many of these kind of pollutants, store them, break them down, and in some cases even use them as nutrients to grow wetland plants. Because of this amazing ability to clean up some pollutants, wetlands are being used to help treat wastewater from some cities and even livestock feedlots.
Wetlands also improve water quality by cleansing or filtering runoff full of sediment that comes from higher in the watershed. This helps keep sediment out of our streams and rivers. Sediment is considered the number one pollutant in our streams and rivers.
Wetlands as a Sponge. Wetlands’ flatness and lush plant growth slows down the flow of water when it rains. When this happens water may gently trickle into nearby streams or seep into the aquifer increasing the amount of groundwater. This ability of wetlands to recharge groundwater is especially important in times of drought and in arid parts of Texas where communities struggle to deal with declining water tables. (Fig. 10.10)
The ability for wetlands to slow the flow of water also helps reduce damage caused by floods. When the water from heavy rains reaches wetlands, the water is slowed and the wetlands act as giant sponges. They first absorb and hold the water, and then release it slowly back into the watershed. Unfortunately, humans can disrupt this natural flood control ability of wetlands by building levees along rivers, digging drainage ditches through wetlands, and channelizing streams. The unfortunate consequence of these actions increases damage from floods. (Fig. 10.11). Along the Texas coast, wetlands help protect shorelines and areas inland from flooding during huge storms, such as hurricanes.
Wetlands as a Tourist Attraction. Wetlands help the economy and even attract tourists. Each year Texas fishermen catch about 30 million pounds of wetland- dependent shrimp having a value of $100 million. Texas is known around the world for great hunting and fishing. Without healthy wetlands the seafood, fish, birds, and animal we hunt and fish would simply not be here. Wetlands are also treasured by millions of photographers, boaters, hikers, and wildlife watchers, including tourists who come to Texas just to enjoy the natural beauty that our wetlands provide.
A vanishing treasure
Texas has lost over half the wetlands it had before settlement by Europeans. About 7 million acres of wetlands are gone. Many were destroyed by being drained and filled with dirt to use for farming or as land on which to build our homes and businesses. Many of the wetlands that are left have been partially filled by sedimentation, polluted, or altered to the point they no longer function naturally.
To help stop wetlands loss, state and federal conservation agencies work together with wildlife conservation organizations to protect and restore wetlands. (Fig. 10.12) You can help, too, by supporting efforts to protect wetlands no matter where you live.
Do your part to keep pollution from entering Texas’ waters. You can learn more by visiting a wetland. You can also help watch water quality in wetlands by volunteering as a water quality and habitat monitor with the Texas Stream Team. Unlike many aquatic habitats, wetlands are easy to see and explore. Many plants and animals can usually be seen near the water’s edge. Canoeing, kayaking, fishing, and birdwatching are just a few of the fun things you can do while enjoying the beauty of a wetland.
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Texas Aquatic Science is a cooperative education project sponsored by Texas Parks and Wildlife, The Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, and The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University.
Texas Aquatic Science Wetlands was written and edited by author Rudolph Rosen. Project support came from the Ewing Halsell Foundation and the Sport Fish Restoration Program.